Even as budgets get stretched and slashed for transportation across the Pacific Northwest, the effort to go high-speed when it comes to rail continues in the Cascadia region, largely thanks to Microsoft and governmental agencies.
The Cascadia region, anchored by Portland, Oregon, to the south and Vancouver, British Columbia, to the north —including Seattle, Washington nearly centered exactly between the two — shares a common technology-focused jobs sector, climate and disdain for each other’s Major League Soccer teams. They also share a connection via rail, albeit not of the high-speed variety. Dreams, though, have that changing.
Already the governments of the two states and one province that make up Cascadia have jumped on board to study the feasibility of high-speed rail to connect the three cities. Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, outside of Seattle, has provided over $500,000 to study the project becoming the fourth major stakeholder in the work.
Microsoft’s multiple donations to the effort have helped keep the project alive for over two years, but the future remains in doubt with shifting budget needs of the area. Still, though, Microsoft backs the project and proponents, including the advocacy group Cascadia Rail, say the economic benefits of spending roughly $50 billion on high-speed rail infrastructure far outweighs the cost of the projects. Plus, proponents say, the high-speed connection offers a sustainable choice and helps remove vehicles from the clogged Interstate 5 corridor.
The project is still in the incredibly early feasibility study timeframe, with questions still to answer about the technology to use for the track in an effort to get trains moving faster than 200 miles per hour to bring travelers from either Vancouver or Portland to Seattle in 60 minutes. The entire route, then, would take two hours by high-speed rail, a vast time improvement over the current drive times in the region.
Even with a vote in Washington state to cut back car registration fees that has supported transportation projects, backers of the high-speed rail effort remain optimistic. A U.S. High Speed Rail Association meeting and Cascadia Rail Summit both continued to build their cases for the high-speed option and Roger Millar, Washington Dept. of Transportation secretary, told rail supporters that high-speed rail is the only way to keep up with economic and population expansions.
Millar said the over $100 billion it would cost to add a lane of Interstate 5 in each direction from the Oregon to Canadian border in Washington would do little to cut the travel time between Vancouver and Portland, but by spending half that on high-speed rail could turn the trip into a two-hour option.
To get there, though, a new rail line is needed that requires purchasing right-of-way and extensive construction through the 300-plus-miles of terrain that includes tunneling and bridges aplenty.
Backers of the rail plan say a business case analysis deemed the project viable with 1.7 million passengers annually. Now, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Microsoft are looking at how to potentially fund the project and then how to operate it.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.